CARSON, Calif. – Only a year ago, Benny Feilhaber thought he had no chance to get back in the good graces of Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. national team.
So the frustrated Sporting Kansas City midfielder let them have it, sharply criticizing Klinsmann’s player selection in an unusual moment of bridge-burning candor for a frustrated veteran athlete.
One year and one new coach later, Feilhaber has just completed a January training camp with the U.S. men, and he is on the 23-man squad for the first matches in a crucial year of World Cup qualification for the Americans.
“A clean slate,” Feilhaber said with a broad smile.
The U.S. begins the year Sunday with an exhibition against Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. New coach Bruce Arena’s MLS-based player group is clearly optimistic about the tests ahead, but the U.S. needs immediate improvements after two losses late last year put the Americans at the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group.
“It’s a new vibe,” Feilhaber said. “It’s been great. Everybody is fighting for positions, but united in the knowledge that we need to do something special this year in qualifying, and it starts in this camp.”
Feilhaber is an offensive midfielder who could provide a dimension that seemed lacking in the Americans’ attack in recent months. He is just one of several players getting newfound looks and increased attention after fading from Klinsmann’s favor.
Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius and Chad Marshall also might have thought they were all done with U.S. national team play after getting passed over by the German coach. Other younger MLS-based players, including Sebastian Lletget and Walker Zimmerman, still hadn’t attracted Klinsmann’s serious attention.
When Klinsmann was fired and Arena took over late last year, the veterans had already made their usual January vacation plans – and McCarty even scheduled his wedding this month.
They all reported to the Los Angeles suburbs for the start of another run under Arena, who has been determined to keep an open mind about anyone who could help his team.
“They don’t have to prove anything extra,” Arena said of the second-chance contingent. “But they’ve demonstrated they’re good players, and they’ve convinced me that they’re options. At the end of the day, we’ve got to compile all of this stuff after this camp and then look at our pool of players that are in Europe as well as in Mexico and try to see what makes sense for the games in March. It’s not going to be an easy exercise, for sure.”
The match in San Diego is Arena’s first for the U.S. team since June 22, 2006, when the Americans were eliminated from the World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Ghana at Nuremberg. After his first U.S. tenure ended, Arena moved on to build the LA Galaxy into a three-time MLS champion.
From veteran Jermaine Jones to youngster Jordan Morris, the MLS-based players appear to appreciate Arena’s confident style of management – while realizing the results will determine his real success. “Bruce is very open with his players,” Feilhaber said. “He lets you know exactly what he expects from you, and he’s been very clear with me what position he would like me to play in, and what my responsibilities would be for the team. It’s very straightforward and easy to grasp what my job is. It’s been very few surprises.”
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